Little White Lie Documentary Review Essays

“We can’t become the criminals we’re fighting against…” Matthew Heineman’s almost accidentally fearless exposé of Mexico’s terrifying cross-border drug cartels opens with what looks like an outtake from Breaking Bad: an atmospherically torchlit scene of masked men cooking crystal meth, talking of American chemistry and local poverty, and how they will keep doing this “as long as God allows”, whatever the consequences. It ends with an equally cinematic encounter with a uniformed man whose chilling allegiances blur the lines between “good and evil” (drug prevention and creation) so thoroughly that, were this a fiction, the screenwriter would be fired for overplaying the Nietzschean parallels. But this is not fiction. On the contrary, it is horribly real, an urgent and alarming account of a crisis so hellishly labyrinthine it’s hard to see how anyone can escape its widening web of violence, extortion and corruption.

Heineman’s documentary (which follows on the heels of Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura, and Angus Macqueen and Guillermo Galdós’s Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty) began life as a portrait of extremist American vigilantes patrolling the Mexican border in Arizona, afeared of the tide of drugs and people they believe are overrunning their country. “The phrase vigilante has been given a bad name by the media,” says Tim “Nailer” Foley, an army vet and former meth user turned self-styled avenging angel, who sees his role as “upholding the law where there is no law”.

But when Heineman learned of the Autodefensas, a civilian coalition waging its own war against the cartels in Michoácan, his focus shifted south of the border. Through his camera we meet Dr José Manuel Mireles, a charismatic (and camera-ready) physician who inspires people to retake their towns from the grip of murderous drug dealers. After footage of a mass burial – the appalling aftermath of cartel slaughter (“they grabbed babies by their tiny feet and smashed them against the rocks”) – Heineman follows the rebel militia as it rousts the enemy in its midst, capturing “Knights Templar” gang henchmen even as the authorities attempt to impede its progress. With his black cowboy hat, Mireles resembles a matinee western hero, his triumphs played out in arresting widescreen vistas to a twanging spaghetti-inflected accompaniment. But as the Autodefensas’s influence increases, so, too, do questions about its conduct and motives. Are these new sheriffs any more reliable than those they have come to usurp?

Counting Kathryn Bigelow among its executive producers (this restates the unacknowledged torture-creates-chaos themes of Zero Dark Thirty), Cartel Land is overtly dramatic fare that boasts both nerve-racking, ground-level combat scenes and elegiac aerial footage of the no-man’s-land around the US/Mexico border. But its real strengths lie in the intimacy with which Heineman documents his subjects. Like The Act of Killing’s director Joshua Oppenheimer, Heineman has been accused of focusing too closely on the interpersonal at the expense of the geopolitical. Yet it is precisely this first-hand element that allows his depiction of a horrendous human tragedy to hit its targets on such a gut level.

From the outset, we are told directly it is the burgeoning US market that funds the cartels’ activities, underwriting the atrocities that attend the production of drugs in Mexico, unimpeded by the authorities on either side of the border. Similarly, the juxtaposition of Foley and Mireles provides a stark counterpoint of their respective vigilante endeavours. Ultimately, however, it is the insider spectacle of Mireles’s stated ambitions unravelling that make this such compulsive viewing.

As the Autodefensas falls prey to internal corruption and external politics, it becomes clear that nothing is black and white. There’s something Shakespearean about the rise of Mireles’s wingman, “Papa Smurf”, and Heineman captures the innate theatricality of public meetings wherein a choric crowd accuses the Autodefensas of “usurping the law” even as the government offers/threatens to transform it into the authorised “rural defence force”.

An unashamedly attention-grabbing soundtrack by H Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg lends an epic, melancholic sweep to the unfolding events, while down-the-lens interviews with those who have born witness to unspeakable events bring haunting immediacy to their harrowing testimonies. There are no easy solutions here, only the constant reminder that the cost of this crisis is terrible and the risks of documenting it high. Cartel Land demands, and commands, your attention.

The documentary “Little White Lie” would be provocative simply for what it says about race and identity. The director Lacey Schwartz grew up Jewish in Woodstock, N.Y., yet something seemed off. Her peers would ask if she was adopted. At Ms. Schwartz’s bat mitzvah, a member of her synagogue assumed she was an Ethiopian Jew. Her family attributed her darker skin to a Sicilian great-grandfather. Only gradually did Ms. Schwartz, now 37, begin to suspect what might seem obvious to an outsider: that her biological father was black.

“Little White Lie” is, in part, the story of Ms. Schwartz’s evolving view of her background. As a child, she thought of herself as white and even wished for a lighter complexion. College changed that: Although she didn’t declare a race on her application, she says Georgetown considered her a black student based on a photograph. She was welcomed by the Black Student Alliance and began to experience the influence that race has on everyday life.

That shift in perspective might be startling enough, but the movie goes one step further by charting the effect that Ms. Schwartz’s transformation has on her family members and the awkward sense in which her embrace of a biracial identity might be seen as a repudiation of them. The film is a searing portrait of collective denial — a diagnosis from which Ms. Schwartz doesn’t exempt herself.

Ms. Schwartz’s parents, Peggy and Robert Schwartz, who divorced, both say that to varying degrees they had convinced themselves of the Sicilian-ancestry story, even though Lacey Schwartz’s biological father, Rodney Parker, was an acquaintance of family and friends. Some are shown attending Mr. Parker’s funeral, where Ms. Schwartz was announced as one of his children. But even that incident doesn’t open the floodgates of conversation.

“Little White Lie” examines how the secret rippled through the years. Graced with old photographs and footage, Ms. Schwartz, who narrates, films key confrontations with her parents. Anyone expecting a warm reception from the pained-looking Robert, whom she still calls her father, is at the wrong movie.

Even so, the film shows some sympathy toward Peggy, who acknowledges that her relationship with Mr. Parker predated her marriage to Robert. Few moments in recent nonfiction cinema are as piercing as the one in which Ms. Schwartz asks her mother if she might have settled down with Mr. Parker had he not been black.

Little White Lie

NYT Critic’s Pick

  • DirectorsLacey Schwartz, James Adolphus

  • WritersMehret Mandefro, Lacey Schwartz

  • Running Time1h 5m

  • GenresDocumentary, Biography, Drama, Family

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    Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
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